by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by Philip Gabriel.
Atlantic, 570 pp., £16.99, July 2003, 1 84354 080 0
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It is necessary to study precisely how permanent collective wills are formed, and how such wills set themselves concrete short and long-term ends – i.e. a line of collective action.


Nobel Prize-winners seem to fall into two categories: those whom the prize honours, and those who honour the prize. And then there are those assumed to be in the first category, who turn out to have been in the second all along. Such was, for example, ‘the author of a dirty book called Sanctuary’, who proved unexpectedly to be the greatest novelist in the world. Such also, I believe, is Kenzaburo Oe, whose latest novel shows how mistaken American stereotypes of him were (and perhaps how mistaken his own stereotype of himself was).

At least two things were thought to have been known about this writer when Grove gradually began to introduce his work in English in the late 1960s (Oe was born in 1935). The first is that he was a committed anti-nuclear activist (the West probably not knowing enough about Japanese politics to grasp the complexities of the ANPO, or New Left, movement of 1960). The second is that he is the father of a handicapped son, born with a strange protuberance on his head, who has grown up to be a musician and a composer. Anyone unaware of the first of these features is much less likely to have remained unaware of the second, since it appears in virtually every book Oe has written.

But it appears with variations, as do all of Oe’s themes or obsessions. This is not to be understood psychologically, as a pretext for deducing the primal fantasy or archetype repeating itself like the eternal return of some endless murmur. I prefer to think of the process as one of never-ending construction and reconstruction with a finite number of building blocks, which you put together in all kinds of different ways: tragically, comically, mythically and, in the case of Somersault, with a kind of ‘late-style’ simplicity, like the architectonics of a Bruckner symphony.

Still, it would seem that something is new here (the ‘somersault’ of the title suggests renunciation and rebirth). Oe himself has announced that what he calls the ‘idiot son’ cycle of his narratives is over. That is not quite true; but the father-son motif, withdrawing into the background, does seem here to be transformed almost beyond recognition, giving way to an urgent preoccupation with group formation which was always present in Oe’s earlier work, but never posed so directly. Somersault (Ch¯ugaeri, published in Japan in 1999) tells the story of the attempt by its founder to resurrect a religious cult he has himself discredited and virtually destroyed. It is an oddly formalistic exercise, in which the mechanics of group formation – assembling mailing lists, scheduling meetings, renting meeting places and deciding the order of business – seem to take precedence over the content of the particular religion. Not that such a focus would be altogether without interest: one imagines the Naturalist novelists taking this social phenomenon apart like a machine, and describing all the steps and pitfalls with gusto, while disregarding the spirituality altogether. Oe’s novel has little in common with Naturalism, but it is also resolutely non-spiritual and non-psychological; what Oe has in common with Dostoevsky (the comparison is often made) are the endless philosophical conversations which allowed the latter’s novels to escape the ‘monologic’ perspective of the ideology or set of opinions or beliefs the author may have held in real life. With Oe, too, it might be preferable to dissociate the author from ideas he merely seems to endorse (I will touch on the ‘sacrificial’ and on religion itself later on); and where the Naturalists might have offered us a sociologically rich cast of character types – organisers and bureaucrats, fanatics, groupies, secretaries, fellow travellers etc – the supporting cast here is larger than life, and at the same time formulaic (the building-block system) and existential or unique.

We shouldn’t, however, neglect the shadow presence of The Devils behind all this; or the equally Dostoevskian abjection, in which grotesque characters wallow in their shame and inferiority (Oe’s greatest novel, The Silent Cry, published in 1967, begins with the narrator squatting in a muddy pit destined to become a new septic system, and holding a stinking dog in his arms as he evacuates). Victorianism didn’t permit Dostoevsky to indulge in the outbursts of obscenity recurrent in Oe’s work and very much in evidence in Somersault (Judge Woolsey might have pronounced them ‘emetic’ rather than ‘aphrodisiac’); I doubt whether they reflect the hatred of the body often implicit in such passages, but I also want to exclude culturalism and its myths (such as the idea of some ‘Japanese’ sexuality).

Contingency seems to me a better way of understanding all this: it presides over the grotesque detail fully as much as the various bodily functions, and re-places Oe squarely in the existential tradition, to which, as a French scholar, he remains indebted (Japanese critics, however, also make much of his American-style narratives, including the ‘Americanisms’ of his Japanese). If he is not exactly a realist, he is not really a Modernist either (despite the fireworks of his earlier writing: ‘his woollen jacket striped with light and dark brown was worn with an air of reverent care, though the odds were that it would soon deteriorate into a crumpled, baggy heap like a large dead cat’ – The Silent Cry). His work avoids standard Modernist devices such as autoreferentiality; and, although it is often a question of art in Oe – the great Jonah triptych here, the Tantric Buddhist painting of hell in The Silent Cry – my sense is that, as in Hegel, the aesthetic centre of gravity has shifted imperceptibly towards ritual rather than in the direction of the autonomous work of art. Yet Somersault is scarcely Postmodern either, save perhaps for that interest in small groups which parallels a Western ethnic or identity politics.

Indeed, it now seems best to grasp the ‘idiot son’ motif as being itself a first attempt at group formation. It is a failed attempt, although it is not ‘a personal matter’ (the title of Oe’s most famous version of the subject) and is thus not to be interpreted according to the usual humanist misreadings, such as guilt, or even the existential ones, such as the ‘life sore’ of Paule Marshall or Sartre’s ineradicable past act. Rather, the multiple permutations of this relationship end up revealing it as that sad and comic dramatic structure Beckett called the pseudo-couple, a vaudevillesque situation of neurotic dependency in which two differentially maimed and underdeveloped subjectivities provisionally complete each other. Nor is this a family structure exactly: sometimes a wife is introduced, vengeful and aggressive (as in The Pinch Runner Memorandum, 1976) or alcoholic, lachrymose and catatonic (as in The Silent Cry), but we could equally well see this pseudo-couple as a fraternal pair, and indeed in The Silent Cry the deformed baby is very much upstaged by the central struggle between the two enemy brothers, while in The Pinch Runner Memorandum, a galloping and comic nightmare more reminiscent of Lem’s Futurological Congress than of anything in Philip K. Dick, the father and son actually change places (it might have been called ‘The Switchover’), the former becoming a teenager while the latter assumes the advanced age of the father (38), the whole being projected onto an analogous father-handicapped-son pair whose ‘story’ the narrator (presumably Oe himself) relates in the voice of the alternate progenitor, who has become the son and teenage buddy of his wiser son-father.

The pseudo-couple has not disappeared altogether from Somersault, where the handicapped boy (who has, like Oe’s own son, become a musician and begun to compose in his own right) is a minor character, accompanied by a ‘normal’ sister; but it can be rediscovered in the central narrative frame, where it is compelled by outright homoeroticism in the person of the cancer-ridden arts teacher (Kizu) fascinated by the ‘dog-faced boy’ (Ikuo), a taciturn and stubborn youth he had observed long ago as a small child awkwardly carrying an enormous model building (they will years later be unexpectedly united around the reorganisation of the sect). Yet even this idiosyncratic adolescent figure was foreshadowed in a completely different narrative context in The Silent Cry, where he turns out to be the leader of a children’s group in Oe’s native Shikoku forest valley (a role Ikuo reassumes in Somersault when the sect moves to that same valley, itself a constant throughout Oe’s work).

What to do with these multiple permutations, in which the return of the same is always different? The pseudo-couple, to be sure, traces an august (if ridiculous) lineage all the way back (via Flaubert) to Don Quixote; but Beckett, who was the first to name this structure (in Mercier and Camier, I believe) gives us what is perhaps a more productive clue in Waiting for Godot. The Beckett play involves two pseudo-couples, the relatively egalitarian team of the two clochards (differentiated only by their physical ailments) being episodically juxtaposed with a very different and decidedly unegalitarian pair in the persons of Pozzo – the master, presumably signifying England – and Lucky, the slave, presumably signifying Ireland and its intellectuals. The first pseudo-couple offers the interminable repetitions of everyday life and existential experience and boredom; the second brings power and history into the matter (the conflation of the two pairs into one in Endgame does not overcome this mysterious incommensurability, even though we are told that Beckett came to loathe his first, allegorical and world-historical effort).

This kind of doubling is also to be found in Somersault, where the first pseudo-couple of the sickly painter and the adolescent rebel (itself harbouring, as I have said, echoes of the primal pseudo-couple of father and handicapped son) is confronted with what may be called a political pseudo-couple, in the twin direction of the sect and the persons of the peculiarly named Patron and Guide. But these nicknames (invented by a journalist) are modest euphemisms for their fundamental roles as Saviour and Prophet respectively. A spiritual division of labour of this kind is not uncommon in the history of religious movements: Moses and Aaron, Jesus and St Paul, Sabbatai Sevi and Nathan of Gaza, are only a few of the joint religious leaderships that come to mind. (In an article in these pages, Perry Anderson has suggested that, at least in Latin American politics, the reverse is frequent, with the public leader being shadowed by his decidedly unpublicised éminence grise: perhaps a theory is to be concocted on the basis of this interesting inversion?)

Again, something of the catastrophic reversal of Waiting for Godot is to be found in Somersault: for, early in the revival, Guide is murdered by the so-called radical faction of the older followers. His disappearance serves to lay Patron’s fundamental helplessness bare: not only has the Saviour had no new visions since the end of the older cult, but the public interpretations of those visions turn out to have been fabrications on Guide’s part, flights of fancy engineered according to Guide’s own view of the direction the movement is to take (indeed, the sub-faction of scientists and technicians responsible for the group’s dissolution, and later on for Guide’s death, is very much his own operation).

The disappearance of Guide clarifies Patron’s decision to start the group up again: Somersault is centrally concerned with the possibility of forming groups – a political movement, an active collectivity, a return to the communal in some new form after the ravages of modern or Modernist individualism – which do not posit violence as a necessary accompaniment or outcome. This is a fundamental dilemma in what is, despite appearances, a political rather than a religious novel: religion being, in an apolitical age like ours, the privileged form of the Ruse of History. But politics or political theory is here not a matter of empirical interests or even ideologies and parties, of class struggle as such: it constitutes an ontological inquiry into the very possibility for biologically isolated human beings to form groups which can function as historical agencies. Nor is Patron’s preoccupation with violence to be grasped as a merely pacifist or humanist ‘value’, as Oe’s early history as an anti-nuclear activist has been thought of in the West: rather, it addresses a fundamental dilemma in the existence of groups as such. The philosophical confrontation with these issues has been at best sporadic; in modern times one thinks of Carl Schmitt or the Sartre of the Critique, while earlier it was mainly around the founding of religions (and their subsequent schisms) that group formation was presented as a problem that eludes the visual field of liberalism or humanism and their various forms of repressive tolerance. For the conceptualisation of the group or collective always comes up short against the unhappy fact (if it has to be a fact!) that in order to differentiate itself and to achieve that mode of praxis which is today loosely and ideologically called its ‘identity’, the nascent collectivity seems necessarily to have to define itself by way of frontiers and borders, by way of a kind of secession: it must always, in other words, following Schmitt’s remarkable formulation, posit an enemy. Thus, in order for humanity as a whole to experience the perpetual peace and harmony fantasised by the humanists, to enjoy one great collective identity all across the globe, we would need, as Sartre observed, the unifying intervention of an enemy in outer space (it is a logical corollary beautifully imagined by Ursula LeGuin in her novel The Lathe of Heaven).

The issue is not only philosophical or ontological, however, and the recent history of Japan is there to account for the way Oe dramatises it in Somersault, and also for the relative formalism of its staging. For Japan – that simultaneously violent and very well-behaved place – having had its own experience of the great mass movements of Communism and Fascism, came to the contemporary forms of collective action somewhat earlier than Europe or the US, in the great ANPO anti-treaty demonstrations of 1960, from which both an anti-nuclear mobilisation and the Narita Airport movement emerged, the latter enjoying perhaps the longest lifespan (some twenty years) of any radical action of the postwar period. The displacement and supersession of the Communist Party by New Left or extraparliamentary left movements – what the France of 1968 called ‘groupuscules’ – meant not merely a draining away of the central ideological conflict of the Cold War (particularly since most of these small groups were more passionately anti-Communist than anti-capitalist in the first place); it also meant the emergence of the new political dynamic epitomised by the fraternal conflicts of Oe’s Pinch Runner Memorandum, where it is difficult to distinguish between the revolutionary group and the counter-revolutionary group attacking it.

This is not to suggest that Oe, himself the target of right-wing and nationalist, pro-Emperor violence, believes in some hypothetical convergence between Left and Right, even less is it to compare skinheads with multiple left groupuscules, perfectly capable of killing each other off without the help of the Right. He is indeed anti-nationalist and anti-Emperor, but he may also be seen as a political regionalist, substituting the problematic of space for the reprehensible rhetoric of the nation and of patriotism. In Somersault, warring factions coexist uneasily within the overarching religious framework of the movement. It is important, however, not to characterise this kind of religious politics as conservative or reactionary, as one would for the most part be entitled to do for similar movements in the US or Europe. Oe’s religion could probably be described as Blakean (see above all Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age, 1983), Blake being, along with Sartre and Dostoevsky, the central literary reference point of his work (always accompanied by a host of minor allusions: in the present novel there is a lengthy appreciation of the poetry of R.S. Thomas and his doctrine of ‘quiet emergence’).

We have learned in recent times that religion emerges (quietly or not) as the ideological form of political content whenever the openly political or socio-economic has been discredited or withdrawn: as it was by the long history of Stalinism, or, in the Middle East, by the wholesale massacre of one national Communist Party after another, which left only Islam as an available framework for revolt and resistance.

All this is complicated by a peculiar turn in recent Japanese history which must be taken into account for the proper intelligence of Somersault. In Japan, the 11 September experience, the shattering of a First World complacency with political results as yet incompletely known, took place on a fateful date which will not generally be recognised in the West: namely, 20 March 1995. This was the day on which Aum Shinrikyo spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and injuring thousands. It is only after al-Qaida that the West has been able to appreciate the collective trauma inflicted on Japan, one different in kind from its earlier political violence. For the long-lasting experience of the Narita Airport movement was not only geographically contained, confined to the ‘solidarity huts’ ringing the airport then under construction; it was also repressed by the Japanese public sphere, which ceased to report or to discuss it, and at the same time made to seem antiquated by the multiple left ideological slogans which still decorated its banners. The invasive power of Aum’s intervention could not be muffled or disguised in the same way. This is how Somersault summarises the movement, on which its narrative is a more than implicit commentary:

The founder of the group called Aum Shinrikyo was trained in India, and at the point where he first declared himself to be the Final Liberated One he had only 35 followers. By the next year this had grown to 1500. Later, a core leadership joined that committed several terrorist acts. The following year, the year their Mount Fuji headquarters was completed, they reached 3500 followers and became a religious corporation. Two years later they ran candidates in a national election, and even the one billion yen they spent in the effort didn’t seem to faze them, so great were their financial resources by this time. Finally, they made contacts with sources in the collapsing Soviet Union and purchased some large helicopters, all the while developing the capability to produce 70 tons of sarin.

So they started with 35 people and got to this point in less than ten years. If they’d really been able to carry out their Armageddon battle, the 4000 people killed and injured in the sarin attack on the subway would have been nothing in comparison.

Patron’s Church of the New Man also preached the end of the world, the dystopian collapse of late capitalism in ecological disaster, mass starvation and internecine violence. Predictably, it also included a ‘radical faction’ bent on Aum-style violence, a strategy to which Somersault, and Patron in his revised movement, propose an alternative.

Both movements, however, the real one as well as its fictive analogue, will necessarily startle Western observers by the presence in them of highly educated scientists and technicians (as attested by Aum’s formidable arsenal). We are accustomed to learning that Militia sympathisers in the US study the Internet for their technological recipes, but not that such fringe groups include a significant population of trained doctors and university researchers attracted to their aims and beliefs. Patron’s Church includes scientists (among them the ‘radical faction’ which killed Guide), along with many other kinds of social combination: a feminist collective, for example (the ‘Quiet Women’), who meditate a Jonestown-style solution at the end of the novel; a group of teenage or pre-teen boys, the ‘Young Fireflies’, ultimately led by Ikuo (but already foreshadowed in Oe’s first novel, Nip the Buds Shoot the Kids, published in 1958, a Solzhenitsyn-like novel about so-called juvenile delinquents); the significantly named Moosbrugger Committee (after the serial killer in Musil’s Man without Qualities, one of the most remarkable portraits of psychopathic consciousness in all literature); groups of surviving followers from the earlier Church, who had turned away from Patron after his ‘somersault’ and gone their own independent way; and, in the foreground, various oddball, handicapped or misfit protagonists. This multiplicity of social backgrounds serves, in my opinion, to displace standard Western diagnoses of alienation and anomie with the more positive appeal of collective practice and group participation; the novel, in other words, is more interested in the construction of the group than in psychosocial theories about its motivation.

That same ignorant liberal Western reader who has been such a convenient straw man throughout this piece provides yet another misreading for instructive denunciation: viz. the impression that Patron’s ‘somersault’ is designed to avoid the pitfalls of tyranny and totalitarianism, the personality cult, and charismatic authority of all kinds; but I don’t think that such liberal or anarchist preoccupations with egalitarian or radical democracy are much of an issue here. Both Patron and Guide are flawed characters with seriously doubtful pasts (although neither quite so horrendous as the 1976 anticipation of Patron in The Pinch Runner Memorandum, where he is the very caricature of corrupt power, pulling all possible strings behind all possible scenes, and worthy of every imaginable political protest, including assassination). The novel faithfully lays the facts before us, without debunking the mission or vocation to which these not very successful people have suddenly found themselves called: perhaps psychoanalysis has defused the critical impact of such revelations (or perhaps the current regime of cynical reason takes them for granted). At any rate, Patron’s qualifications as a prospective saviour seem to lie exclusively in his vaguely schizophrenic visions of the cosmos, to which I prefer the more science-fictional one of The Pinch Runner Memorandum:

My personal speculation is this: Earth is part of a gigantic cosmic construct, and it is being pulled along, like on a conveyor belt, towards its proper place in that construct! And our Milky Way is the conveyor belt carrying Earth to its designated point on the blueprint; at the last stage of this journey, the Milky Way functions both as the launch pad, and as the energy source providing the correct vector and thrust for Earth’s lift-off. This near-perfect spherical unit, humankind’s abode for so long, will fit into place with a snap, and complete the preplanned cosmic construct! However, back in the preparatory stages, when all the units for assembling were first being created, a minute defect was found on the sphere called Earth. In the end, to correct that defect, beasts, birds, fish and insects, as well as humans – all infinitesimal on the cosmic scale – had to be introduced . . . I think those nuclear explosions that have occurred – on deserts or coral atolls – are Earth’s finishing touches, the polishing up or corrections of the defect – whatever you want to call it. The next targets are big cities, excluding of course the two already devastated. When Earth is a perfectly sized sphere meeting cosmic specs, it will blast off from the Milky Way launch pad, and snap into its proper place in the ultimate structure!

Patron’s visions are perhaps little more than the necessary but not sufficient qualifications for group formation: Guide was always there to give them the appropriate content. Indeed, one has the sense that in this novel it would be enough for someone publicly to announce the intention to form a new group or sect for people to flock to it. But poor Fourier advertised in vain (he remained at home faithfully every day at noon, waiting for a Maecenas who never appeared); and Americans will be more familiar with the process whereby an existing group fragments into smaller and smaller ones, in never-ending schism and sectarianism.

But what was the ‘somersault’ in the first place if not just such a schism in which (as with Mao or Lacan) former devotees are invited to ‘bombard the headquarters’? With this radical act, Patron moved to disarm his militant faction (intent on bringing about the long-prophesied end of the world by the nuclear destruction of Tokyo) by publicly renouncing his own doctrine and confessing that he and Guide were both charlatans who never had any authentic visions and whose prophecies were little more than an elaborate hoax. With this, the movement for the most part collapses, the radical scientists are rounded up by the police, and Patron and Guide ‘enter hell’, where they remain for ten years until re-emerging (at the beginning of this novel) to found a new movement on the ashes of the old one. The somersault was thus a form of self-destruction all along, anticipating the suicide whereby Patron removes himself from his own regenerated movement at the novel’s conclusion. But I would rather not characterise it as sacrificial, any more than I would like to lapse into culturalism by suggesting something quintessentially Japanese about the suicides which run through Oe’s work and culminate in this one. Sacrifice is here seen as the momentum of history and of the repetitions of revolt, but we cannot understand that properly without coming (in conclusion) to the ‘power of place’, the ‘power of the land’.

I have already touched on the return, in almost all Oe’s novels, to his native valley in Shikoku. This new regionalism is no surprise in the era of globalisation, where the local tends to constitute an inevitable protest against urban standardisation and the destruction of nature and the peasantry (or farmers) by agribusiness: it also tends to organise itself into an ideology and a compensatory fantasy rather than a political programme. The Silent Cry, however, teaches us that we must grasp ‘the power of the land’ as the recovery of history; and even Patron’s last, sacrificial act is explicitly linked to a similar episode on the same spot a generation earlier (an incident celebrated in the as yet untranslated epic Burning Green Tree trilogy of 1993). But Oe’s work contains many more historical levels than this: and Somersault merely adds a new post-Aum layer to a series of historical strata which reach all the way back to a pre-Meiji Shikoku peasant uprising, proceeding from there through the new imperial dispensation down to the village turmoil at the end of World War Two. The 1960s looting of the new capitalist supermarket (in The Silent Cry) once again recapitulates the cycle of revolt that resonates through Oe’s novels, now in mythical form (in M/T and the Marvels of the Forest, 1986) and now in the grim and bloody desperation of The Silent Cry. Somersault, in yet a new way, continues to make accessible to us ‘these madmen, who like kings, come one at a time’.

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